Development in the English Countryside

By Wedd, George | Contemporary Review, January 1997 | Go to article overview
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Development in the English Countryside


Wedd, George, Contemporary Review


The English countryside is highly valued, both in England and internationally. It is a matter of anxiety that in the second half of the twentieth century it has come under more pressure than ever before and that, as the century draws to its close, the pressures seem to be growing greater rather than less.

It is useful to reflect for a moment on just why it is valued. It is verdant; only in times of the greatest drought does it look uncomfortably parched. It is varied, in a delicate and unemphasised way; a journey of, say, fifty miles will take the traveller through three or four different and contrasting landscapes. Begin, for example, in the Lincolnshire Fens and travel west, across the Vale of Trent into the craggy uplands of the Peak District, or along the line of the Cotswolds from the pearly-grey towns and villages at the southern end, through the area of golden stone which everyone thinks of as classically Cotswold to the Northamptonshire area where the stone - still the same stone, but now tinted with iron ore - is dark red. At its wildest it is never overdramatic: the Lake District hills are toys compared to the Alps, and North Cornwall is about the tamest of all North-West Europe's rough Atlantic coasts. There are no volcanoes, earthquake zones, deserts, tundras, or huge forbidding swamps - hardly anywhere where it is dangerous to be. It almost always looks comfortable and habitable, and so it should; it is a thoroughly man-made landscape, shaped to mankind's needs and purposes over millennia. The climate is temperate enough to allow outdoor activity throughout a normal year. If we go back to the metaphor of 'Spaceship Earth' so popular a few years ago, then the English Countryside is a first-class cabin on the promenade deck of that spaceship.

There is a high degree of awareness of its value. In 1995 the Countryside Commission carried out an 'attitude survey' and found that '93 per cent of people thought that the countryside was of value to them whether they visited it or not, and 91 per cent believed that the present generation had a moral obligation to protect it'. There is, of course, a 'motherhood' side to such a survey; it is difficult to disapprove of desirable and non-controversial things: and perhaps a warning bell ought to ring when people find a moral dimension to an essentially factual subject. But the idea that there is something moral about the 'birds and the bees, the grass and the trees', apart from having a respectable history going back to Wordsworth and the Romantic Movement, is the starting-point for two modern trends, one leading to violent anti-roads protesters and the other, more sedately, to the basis of present public policy, a concept called Sustainable Development.

Any discussion of planning policy has to include some statistics. The greater part of England is still rural; but something like a fifth of it is not. The greatest single pressure on the countryside comes quite simply from the need to house people somewhere. About 11,250 acres a year are being lost from the countryside to urban uses. This is in fact a great reduction on the 1950s, when the rate of loss was about 31,500 acres a year. But the 1950s were an exceptional decade, when we were making up rapidly for the stop on construction during the war, and the Macmillan housing drive (300,000 houses a year) forced the loss of very many greenfield sites. The total population of the country is increasing very slowly. The United Kingdom's population stands at 58 million. The best estimates are that by 2012 it will be 61 million, and will stabilise at 62 million in about 2030. There is a great time-lag at work here, as the babyboom of the 1960s works its way through the system. The basis of the calculation is the number of children each woman has: to keep population stable, the average number has to be 2.1 (two to replace herself and the father, and 0.1 to allow for early and accidental deaths). The United Kingdom number is now 1.

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